Amidst the tornado that was President Jacob Zuma's cabinet reshuffle on Thursday night, one name was missing.
Pretender to the presidential throne, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whose return from Addis Ababa where she served as African Union Commission chairperson for four-and-a-half years was rumoured as something that could spark a reshuffle, was nowhere to be seen.
She came back with fanfare and a large welcome home ceremony just over two weeks ago, and it was expected that she would step back into a Cabinet position. A reshuffle was overdue anyway and would make space for her, it was argued.
Dlamini-Zuma was minister of home affairs before she left for Addis in 2012 and she was so successful that some said she shouldn't have left as she was so badly needed at home.
On Tuesday she was seen leaving Luthuli House, the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters, after what was said to have been a meeting presumably with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and possibly others around the same time that Pravin Gordhan, freshly recalled from his last overseas investment expedition as finance minister, was in the house.
It's not clear what she discussed with Mantashe, but Gordhan said in his final press conference on Friday that his meeting at Luthuli House had nothing to do with the reshuffle.
So perhaps the discussion was on other matters.
The next day Zuma snubbed the funeral of struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, because the Kathrada family said he should not speak there. Zuma allies like Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and Cooperative Governance Minister Des van Rooyen were also not spotted at the event.
Most other prominent ANC leaders, including Mantashe, Gordhan, and Dlamini-Zuma were there.
By attending the funeral Dlamini-Zuma clearly wanted to signal that she did not want to be narrowly defined as a leader in Zuma's camp, even though the president and his supporters are actively campaigning for her election.
A day after this funeral, Zuma reshuffled his Cabinet and removed Gordhan — possibly on the grounds of a fake intelligence report that said Gordhan wanted to overthrow him, as well as Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, who was the main speaker at Kathrada's funeral and also the chairperson of the foundation's board.
In the 10 cabinet positions and 10 deputy minister positions with new incumbents, Dlamini-Zuma's name did not feature once.
She was also not amongst those Cabinet members called to Mahlaba Ndlopfu following a meeting between Zuma and ANC officials in which he informed them of his intended reshuffle.
One of the sources close to her campaign said she declined a Cabinet appointment, but failed to say why.
Another said "she needs time and space to work the ground" ahead of the ANC's elective conference in December, where she wants to run for president.
Part of her strategy is also retaining a distance from controversy. Her campaigners "want to sustain her 'clean' image, and ministerial work is too admin intensive and side-tracks from the primary goal of campaigning," he said.
The ANC's internal system of nomination has changed with more emphasis on the input of branches, which means that these relatively small meetings have become really important.
There is also the issue of managing perceptions, another source close to her said. She must have been aware that Zuma's latest move might not go down well in the ANC and she might be perceived as tainted. Gordhan himself said on Friday the attacks against him, as well as his axing, were dubious.
A further Cabinet reshuffle is not impossible. Although it could keep her busy, a ministerial position together with perks such as a free campaign platform, transport and security, would come in handy for Dlamini-Zuma, who has the ability to work herself to the bone.
Dlamini-Zuma is already set to lose her VIP protection which was agreed to and paid for by the Department for International Relations until the end of March as part of her secondment to the AU — and blue lights would have come in handy for a presidential campaign.
Until further notice, however, Dlamini-Zuma seems to be opting for the independent path.Suggest a correction